James O’Connor was always talented, but he was a bit of a rugby brat when he first made the Wallabies. He talked to Jim Tucker about his ‘second career’ and how different he is as a person.
You know James O’Connor is a new man by simply looking at his normal haircut when he runs out for the Wallabies.
He’s no longer the platinum blond who was craving attention at French club Toulon where former All Black Ali Williams was once a dubious running mate.
There are no streaks or out-there fashion cuts and the topknot thing he tried is long gone.
“I don’t need to be flash anymore, that’s just ego, insecurity, really,” the elder of the Wallabies’ backline can now reflect.
“I got to a point there, where I wasn’t capable of expressing myself how I wanted through my rugby on the field so I did it through those looks I guess.
“Some of the photos I put up on Instagram I cringe at now because I was literally trying to portray a picture of someone I’m not.”
O’Connor had to find himself first before he had any chance of finding a way back from the wilderness to be a Wallaby again.
It has been a truly remarkable journey of self-discovery and success against the odds. If anyone tells you they hadn’t written him off and closed his chapter as a Wallaby by 2018, they are lying.
We fuss over footballers who have been out of a Test team for 18 months and wax over how great a comeback it has been.
O’Connor spent longer in the wilderness as a Wallaby than most players have Test careers. He was essentially off the map for six years, so long that the jersey-maker had changed and so had most of his teammates.
There could almost be two separate entries under “J D O’Connor” in those encyclopedias of Test rugby profiles we now find online. He’d played 44 Tests by the age of 23 and was gone.
It’s a great story because he’s done what he said he’d do. There’s lots of exciting things ahead for him.” Reds coach Brad Thorn on James O’Connor.
The precocious youngster he was and the mature person he has worked so hard to become are a world apart.
We always talk in rugby terms about saving a career. O’Connor has saved something far more important...himself as a person.
The Wallabies are backing O’Connor all the way and not just for this Bledisloe Cup series. His new two-year contract means he’ll be 33, with the occasional grey strand, when the 2023 Rugby World Cup starts in France.
O’Connor is re-writing his legacy and few get to do that.
Self-centred, childish and “Brand O’Connor” were just the most basic slap-downs in his youth when he wore more unflattering labels than a cheap fashion house.
He was grounded for a Bledisloe Cup Test in 2011 when he slept in, whereabouts unknown, and missed the Wallabies’ grand World Cup squad unveiling of that year in Sydney.
Trip-ups like that were galling but talent always won him more chances for a time.
Replace those outdated tags with “unselfish”, “team-first” and “mentor.”
The difference is striking.
In March, the clever No.10 scooted down the shortside for the Queensland Reds skipped by a defender and set up a wonderful try for code convert Suliasi Vunivalu against the Brumbies in Canberra.
It was a wonderful snapshot of the new O’Connor. As play director, he’s getting maximum enjoyment out of making others shine.
Reds coach Brad Thorn surprised many by making O’Connor his fill-in captain this season. He did that job so well, he went 8-0 as skipper in Super Rugby AU and scored the winning try on full-time to deliver the first trophy in a decade to Queensland.
“He’s got his house in order and the only thing he’s being talked about for is rugby. It’s all in a positive light. Isn’t that cool?,” Thorn said.
“We did sit down when James first came to the Reds in 2019 and I told him I didn’t think the narrative about him had to be the way it was.
“Basically, I said ‘I’m with ya’ and I wanted the change for him. It’s a great story because he’s done what he said he’d do.
“There’s lots of exciting things ahead for him...the World Cup and even past that.”
O’Connor is willing to talk so honestly about his dark times because there might be a note of hope in his story for another player with his own struggles.
“I want my journey back to inspire possibly other young men out there who may be a little lost in the world,” O’Connor said
“For me, I got to a point in my life where I wasn’t enjoying my rugby, I was lost and my body was broken.
“I wanted to stay out at night. Why was I having those extra few drinks...was it to stay out because it’s exciting or wanting to be more numb?
“It was to feel nothing.”
O’Connor was talking about his troubled 2016-17 at French club Toulon when he was dealing with injury, concussion lay-offs, a seizure when his blood sugar level plunged and being busted for cocaine possession when in Paris with Williams.
“Dark times? There were many because I lost connection with my purpose and there were some days I didn’t get out of bed until 2pm,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor’s fresh rise as a potential Wallabies first five began in a blizzard in Iceland where his destructive ego was broken.
He now radiates his team-first purpose like a compass. He took extreme steps to find it.
In 2018, O’Connor embraced Saviour World, a men’s wellbeing organisation, and found himself confronted with a trip of self-discovery in Iceland.
“We did eight-hour hikes and came back to hour-long sauna sessions, deprivation tanks, meditation and breathing work,” O’Connor said.
“It was all literally to peel back the layers to who I really am because I’d lost my way.
“I had to become accountable, honest, find what life I wanted to lead and why I play rugby.”
The insights he gained are now like an armour and he’ll insert them in conversation. “It doesn’t just happen overnight but when you give back it fills you with energy,” he’ll say.
And another: “You are the sum of your choices.”
They are the small choices all footballers face every day.
“Do I get up or sleep in for 15 more minutes and miss a stretch? There’s a 9s-10s meeting an hour before I have to be at the club, do I go in and be part of the team and help the younger guys even though I’m not playing this week,” O’Connor explained.
He’s been committed to making the right choices since his miracle shot at a Wallabies’ comeback first took shape early in 2019.
He initiated his own "mess up and get rid of me" safeguard as the final contract clincher at that time when he returned from English club Sale.
His proactive willingness to have drug and behaviour clauses inserted in that deal showed his conviction as a changed man to Rugby Australia.
His personal life is his sanctuary. Long-time partner Bridget Bauman has been there beside him through all the highs and lows.
At 31, there’s no escaping that the quicksilver feet that made him one of the few Wallabies to excel at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand have slowed somewhat.
He now brings different attributes to the table. There’s not the jolt of electricity like when Richie Mo’unga takes off but there is organisation, strong communication, a varied passing game, two-touch involvements in plays and smart use of the shortside.
He’s a senior organiser and he shows it.
O’Connor’s honesty extends to a rare critique of his 2013 experience when Wallabies coach Robbie Deans gambled on him at No.10 against the British and Irish Lions.
“Dark times? There were many because I lost connection with my purpose and there were some days I didn’t get out of bed until 2pm.”
The Wallabies lost the series 2-1, O’Connor was no leader when immature off the field and the experiment at No.10 was dumped. So was Deans.
“I thought I played average. I hadn’t spent enough time there. It genuinely hurt I can now admit,” O’Connor said.
“I thought I could do it but I didn’t understand the game well enough because Test level is a much different game. It takes time to learn to play No.10.”
He’s embracing everything the key playmaker role now entails.
He knew he had to improve his general kicking and dust off his goalkicking.
To that end, O’Connor and several Reds teammates this season paid out of their own pockets for sessions with kicking guru Dave Alred, Jonny Wilkinson’s mentor of years ago.
The result? O’Connor slotted his shots at goal at an elite 88 per cent (56-from-64) before a groin niggle sidelined him from the Test series against France in July.
Whether O’Connor gets to lead the Wallabies to more wins over the All Blacks or not, the rugby world has already witnessed a wonderful transformation.
“The goal is to keep growing,” O’Connor said.
This is one rugby player who knows that it is just as important to grow off the field as on it.